Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Northern Ireland flag-flying ex-PM Brown opened Pandora's box

Flag protesters take to the streets of Belfast

In 2007, the new prime minister, Gordon Brown, made an important announcement. His administration would show more interest in flags, specifically the Union flag.

"When I came into government, I realised that you could only fly the flag on 18 days in the year and I thought that was wrong," he said.

One of his first acts when he finally got Tony Blair out of Downing Street was to order that the UK flag would flutter over the prime minister's residence 365 days a year.

In the context of the Haass talks, his reasoning looks somewhat curious. He argued that it would "show how unacceptable the views of terrorist extremists are".

His call to fly the flag was mocked by his political opponents. Brown's reverse-Midas touch resulted in the curious spectacle of the leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party, a certain David Cameron, expressing concerns about "institutionalising Britishness".

"I think we should realise that Britishness is a concept that, if grasped too hard, slips away," the then leader of the Opposition said.

The financial crisis swept away Brown's grand plans to make the British more proud of their country, though his legacy remains. The Union flag flutters atop government buildings on Whitehall throughout the year.

The Scotland Office flies the Saltire alongside the Union flag, and the Wales Office proudly displays the dragon emblem alongside the red, white and blue.

The English don't seem to notice.

Their attitude is that nobody gives a damn whether flags are flown every day, or not at all.

Cameron flies the St George's Cross atop Downing Street from time to time, usually as part of some ill-thought-out stunt to do with football.

And the PM made great play of his recent order to fly the South African flag from his house's busy flagpoles to honour Nelson Mandela.

That is not to say flags have no significance in England, but it tends to be a matter of class.

Flying England's flag on one's car (or white van) is associated, in the minds of the urban middle class, with racism of the sort of vociferously (but ineffectively) promoted by the BNP and their incompetent little brother, the English Defence League.

MPs at Westminster often claim to have no idea why "the Irish" seem so obsessed with flags and symbols and parades.

They look at the Haass process, if they consider it at all, with confusion.

Why do the 'loyalists' insist on marching about the place, wrapped in the Union flag (below)? Who cares if the Irish tricolour flaps above the Falls Road?

Of course, those same MPs fizz with anger when the EU flag comes within 100 yards of a British flagpole.

They cheer when the flags of the Commonwealth, most of which they could not identify if you offered them a crisp £50 note, are periodically displayed around Parliament Square.

Perhaps, when he has time, Dr Haass could pop across to London and help those MPs come to terms with the blue banner with 12 golden stars that seems to alienate and upset them so very much.

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